Issue #15, 2000
What's the Story #15
What's the Story #15
When I graduated high school at eighteen, I told anyone who would listen that I intended to leave Pittsburgh and never come back. I succeeded only in part.
I skipped the college route most of my classmates followed and went directly into the military. After my discharge, I worked a variety of jobs, including truck driver, traveling salesman, shoe clerk, and, sometime later, an account executive for advertising and public relations agencies. I traveled widely for these jobs from one coast to the other. Eventually I became enamored with motorcycles. I resigned from all gainful employment in order to connect the corners of the country on two wheels.
My motorcycle excursions led to my first book; my second book permitted me to travel from ballpark to ballpark with a crew of National League baseball umpires and immerse myself in their lives. My third book too me into the backwoods of West Virginia and Pennsylvania, where I observed, close up, rattlesnake sackers, a one-armed blacksmith, a cooper, and a marijuana farmer. For other books, I have immersed myself in the lives of pediatricians, veterinarians, organ-transplant surgeons, and psychiatrists. For all of these books and a number of other adventures, I left Pittsburgh frequently and traveled widely. But eventually, I always returned to the city of my bad dreams.
I wasn’t plagued with nightmares, but memories of my hometown were pretty negative. I was an outcast and a loner as far back as I could remember. My high school, Taylor Allderdice, was located in the prominently Jewish upper-middle-class area called Squirrel Hill. I was Jewish, but lived in a work-class section adjacent to Squirrel Hill, a blue-collar, heavily Catholic neighborhood called Greenfield.
Neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, then and now, are the anchors of urban life. When you meet Pittsburghers, they might mention the Pirates, the Steelers, or the Penguins—but not before they mention where they come from—Point Breeze (Annie Dillard’s childhood home), the Hill District (of Hill Street Blues TV fame), Garfield, the West End, the North Side. Every neighborhood has an identity and meaning: Fox Chapel means you are wealthy and perhaps somewhat aristocratic, while Homewood, where John Edgar Wideman grew up, is mostly African American. Bloomfield is Pittsburgh’s little Italy, and “Souside,” as Pittsburghers call the South Side has become an upscale center for antiques, art galleries, blues joints—and big-ticket brasseries.
My parents always claimed we were from Squirrel Hill—not Greenfield—because technically we shared the same zip code (15217). But I didn’t buy it, nor did my classmates, who made it clear that I was not a desirable mate by choosing not to include me in most of their social or athletic activities. I wasn’t even significant enough to be taunted or criticized or ridiculed. I was ignored. Erased. I didn’t exist. Teachers, students, from Greenfield or Squirrel Hill, paid little attention—until I decided to make a spectacle of myself by acting out in class or causing trouble in the neighborhood. I did things that I never really intended to do (throw chalk, place thumbtacks on other people’s chairs, wisecrack and shout, fight, break windows), just so I would be noticed, if only for an instant.
The other thing going on in my life growing up in Pittsburgh was more personal and damaging: My father and I were locked in an ongoing battle of wills. My first memory of my father is the day he slapped me on the hand for something he said didn’t belong to me. I was maybe three years old. From that moment, our battles escalated, with many horrendous confrontations and consequences for every member of my immediate family.
The simple fact that I was expected to follow his bidding upon command, or face a beating with a leather strap if I didn’t, frightened and angered me. I refused to bend to his power. I confronted him continually, matching my will against his. In school, my personal problems simmered inside of me with no teachers, neighbors, relatives or friends to talk to or share my entrapment and distress.
There were others in my school and neighborhood who felt similarly alienated and desperate, I suspect. And the story I am telling has little to do with Pittsburgh, actually, or Squirrel Hill, or school. Isolation, loneliness, and alienation occur everywhere, and often to people who seem on the surface to be intimately engaged with that “in” crowd. Two very popular boys around my same age, whom I admired, were to take their own lives not long after high school. One, a prominent community leader, left a young family behind. I remember my shock and surprise when I learned about their self-inflicted deaths. As battered and demoralized as I was, I would never have considered such a destructive action as suicide. I wanted a way out of my depression and alienation, not by ending my life but by finding a new and better one. This was my motivation for wanting to leave home. Life had to be better elsewhere, I thought. And at least I would be ignored by people who didn’t know me—rather than people I had come into contact with all my life.
So why did I stay in Pittsburgh? At least two reasons: First there was tenure at the University of Pittsburgh—that blessed privilege of academic that, at its best, frees an artist or scholar of the burden of worrying about job security and allows us to research, write, paint—think and speak out. The year I earned my undergraduate degree (I had been taking college classes at night) I published my first book and was subsequently invited to teach in the creative writing program in Pitt’s English Department. I’ve been there since, working my way up the academic ladder. To my knowledge, I’m the only tenured full professor in the entire university without an advanced degree.
My other reason for not leaving Pittsburgh had something to do with what journalists call the five Ws—the who, what, where, and why I would be leaving. I have realized recently that I could not have permitted myself to leave Pittsburgh until I confronted the people who had made me uncomfortable in the city through most of my life. So I stayed. I got married, bought a house, amassed possessions, got divorced, and entered into psychotherapy for nine years, all the while writing and publishing and living in but apart—emotionally distanced—from my hometown.
A few years after I remarried, I did something I thought I would never do: I moved back to Squirrel Hill. I shouldn’t say “back” to Squirrel Hill, but rather into Squirrel Hill for the first time, in an exclusive area Pittsburghers refer to as “north of Forbes” —Forbes being the avenue that divides the ordinary middle class in the neighborhood from the wealthy elite.
As I began attempting to become a part of the neighborhood, I saw many familiar faces—people with whom I had grown up, my former teachers, merchants on the street with whom I or my parents had done business. There was Little’s Shoe Store, Forbes Hardware, Franks’ Men’s Store, Kards Plus. At first, the sight of these people, old and gray (and fat), freaked me out. And I braced myself each time I walked up Forbes or Murray, the other main street, waiting for some big insult to my character, personality, my clothes, wife, or child. It never happened. In fact, nothing happened. I met very few people in the four years I lived there, engaged in remarkably few conversations either with old acquaintances or new. This was just like high school, except that now I was an adult, a writer, and teacher—a man who had been shrunk for nine years and who now possessed a strong sense of the five Ws—the who, where, when, why, and what I was.
When I was a kid, watching that community from a point of total isolation, I desperately wanted to be accepted by somebody. But, jealous and intimidated, I couldn’t seem to make any significant social headway. Now, however, I had a life, a family of which I was proud, students who liked me. I didn’t need to be a part of someone else’s world. I was a part of my own world. I was to leave Squirrel Hill and move into nearby Shadyside a couple of years later, a necessity of my second divorce. But I would have left anyway, divorce or not; I didn’t belong there, and that realization made me feel free.
As I sent, I went into therapy after my first divorce. My memories were dark, desperate, and seemingly never-ending. You’d think that a grown man—I was in my thirties—could walk away from something that happened when he was in his teens, but I couldn’t but it behind me without reliving it—repeatedly going over every incident having to do with the circumstances that led up to my confrontations with my father. I analyzed everything, including my mother’s manipulations of the confrontations, the impact of my father’s parents on his rough parenting skills. My talking, complaining, reliving the past went on and on. After a long time, I realized that although I couldn’t completely forgive, I could put my past behind me and attempt to forge a new relationship with him.
My own son has been the glue to that relationship. My father has become an active presence in his life. Sam adores his grandfather; they play together frequently. I don’t know what demons prevented my dad from the same active, positive presence in my life, but it truly no longer matters to me. My son is what matters—and my own feelings about myself as a human being. The fact that the isolation, alienation and anger I felt as a child toward my parents has now become an increasingly distant memory is the signal I have been awaiting ever since my high school graduation and my pronouncement that I wanted to blow this pop stand—leave Pittsburgh and never come back. All those years since high school, the demons from my childhood kept me prisoner. It has taken many decades to tame them. Now I feel released. For the first time in my life I am ready to leave Pittsburgh. I can finally turn my back on my hometown and walk away without leaving any baggage behind.
And because there is little baggage remaining, I find I can also choose to stay. Sam likes it here. He lives with me, but his mother and his grandparents are very close, and he loves his school, which, ironically, is located in Squirrel Hill. The University of Pittsburgh where I work has supplanted the steel industry as the area’s leading employer. The neighborhoods are still strong: my house in Shadyside is comfortable. There are three large parks in running or walking distance of my home. Two new stadiums for the Pirates and Steelers respectively will be constructed in the next few years. My students are bright and for the most part appreciative. I recently purchased a house in a beach town to live in in the summer. I no longer walk the streets in Pittsburgh experiencing the simmering heat of my bad dreams.
I don’t know he direction I will choose next, but that state of paralysis of wanting to leave and being unable to actually take the steps necessary to make my departure a reality is now gone. This is a fact of my life that provides a feeling of tremendous relief and freedom. Knowing that I am free to leave this city and never come back or stay and anchor myself and Sam as true citizens of the “Burgh” is exhilarating and liberating. For the first time, I am analyzing my hometown with objective eyes.
Like me, all of the writers in Lessons in Persuasion have roots in or connections in Pittsburgh. The majority of the contributors have lived here for varied periods of time—and then moved on. The lessons in this collection can be gentle or jarring, but are always eclectic and persuasive. Elissa Wald find stripping less degrading and more lucrative than waitressing or working as an office temp, while Diane Ackerman defines the nature of poetry through the eyes of her students as a game—“a ritual dance with words.” Jan Beatty employs poetry—as a way to understand her adoption. Annie Dillard also speaks to students and writers, endorsing the basics of writing (learn grammar and punctuation)—and life. Chuck Kinder profiles Sid Hatfield, a key figure in West Virginia’s famed Matewan shootout. Lester Goran recreates the Atlantic City boardwalk before blackjack and Donald Trump. Wald, Kinder, and Goran are novelists, as are contributors Steward O’Nan and Hilary Masters—crossing genres into creative nonfiction—and Pittsburghers, which is the glue that binds this collection.
Pittsburgh is not the subject of all of the essays, but each work shares the connective blood and fiber of a writer anchored there. In addition to these well-known Pittsburghers, a number of new writers are being introduced: Kathleen Veslany (whose essay serves as title for the collection), Megan Foss (a recent winner of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Women’s Writers’ Award), Keely Bowers, Leslie Rubinkowski, Richard Peterson, Malcolm Cash, and the father-son duo Jack and Omari Daniel. Also featured is a photo and prose retrospective of the work of the African-American Pittsburgh photographer Teenie Harris by Lea Simmonds, who also serves on the editorial board of Creative Nonfiction. Simmonds poured the vast Teenie Harris collection, many thousands of images, to choose the thirteen included here as representative of Harris’s extensive photographic accomplishments.
Lee Gutkind, recognized by Vanity Fair as “the Godfather behind creative nonfiction,” is the founder and editor of Creative... read more
An interview with Alan Olifson
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